‘Present at the Creation’ was the title of US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s autobiography.
As the US’s chief diplomat between 1949 and 1953, he inaugurated and witnessed key events that shaped our world after the end of the war against Hitler and the commencement of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
The founding of Nato, the massive Marshall Plan, which resurrected Germany from the rubble of the Third Reich, and the US’s entry into the Korean War were huge events, all of which created the architecture for the new world order.
The world back then might have been scary and threatening to many, but it was also stable and its patterns predictable. Today, once- settled outcomes and assured patterns are utterly unpredictable and highly uncertain.
Being back in London last week and witnessing the extraordinary results of the UK general election on Thursday reminded me that I was in the same city also on election night 20 years before, in June 1997, when Tony Blair swept into power at the helm of the party he had dubbed “New Labour”.
His easy charm, vote-winning ways and moderating of the hard left line of the historical party of British socialism powered him to the first of three back-to-back election victories. This feat has been unmatched since, and seldom before; only Margaret Thatcher of the modern era could claim an equal record.
What is amazing – not too strong a word – is how Thursday’s election turned current and previous assumptions on their head. And even more extraordinary, when the votes were finally counted and the results were known, how the experts – who had envisaged an entirely different result – could all proclaim, with the dismal wisdom of hindsight, that the Conservative Party campaign was a “disaster” and that Labour under its far-left leader Jeremy Corbyn had conducted a masterful campaign.
Corbyn did indeed lose but managed with the sort of left-wing programme Blair had deemed electoral poison to win as high a percentage of the vote – 40% – as Blair himself had obtained in 2005.
But what links the unknown consequences for the UK and Europe after last week, and our own grim road to financial ruin courtesy of you-know-who, is just how quickly things change and how seemingly random events can tip the scales, but often in unpredictable ways.
Just ask Prime Minister Theresa May or “President” Hillary Clinton or “French President” Francois Fillon. Of course the first of this trio is hanging on with finger-wrenching intensity to office – but Clinton was undone by her e-mails and the improbable rise of Donald Trump, and it was Emmanuel Macron who swept all before him when his primary opponent in the first round, Fillon, was undone by his greed and family corruption.
Things take longer in South Africa. One would imagine that the daily drip-feed of the e-mail chain between the Guptas and, it would seem, half the cabinet and many members of the Zuma family and its support system, would have done in Number One by now.
And where the mere whiff of corruption elsewhere in the world is enough to see governments resign in disgrace, here at home a veritable sewer’s worth of stench brought to the surface by the overseas server which spills them out barely draws a comment from the government. At first glance it seems to dislodge and discomfit very few in the national high command.
But like a duck serenely swimming on the surface of a pond, its frantic movements below the water remain out of view. And in politics these days and with the digital footprint hiding in plain sight, things are very different, even in slow-moving South Africa.
There are key events, short of a shock general election result in 2019, which are going to happen in the next few months, if not weeks.
One notch above junk status, as we sit after Friday night, it needs just one more seismic shock, or a lesser tremor, to send the whole house tumbling down. One such event is the ANC policy conference at the end of this month. Unable or unwilling to look unsparingly at himself in the mirror for the cause of our national economic catastrophe, Zuma and his outriders signal that they will consider proposing scrapping the constitutional clause which protects property owners from arbitrary expropriation.
The extremity of such a move, which not even Corbyn on a bad day would consider doing the equivalent of (in a country without a written constitution but governed by common law) in Britain would make this country a sell proposition.
Another event is the looming vote of no confidence against Zuma himself. Secret ballot or not, it is inconceivable that some of his key and very public detractors in the ANC who have so vehemently spoken against him and his predations, will, whatever the party whip decrees, vote their confidence in him. A handful of big names who vote in opposition will be expelled from their party. A breakaway will be forced on the ANC before December.
At the December ANC elective conference itself, the anti- Zuma brigades will have two choices. Either to back Cyril Ramaphosa in the hope that he can salvage their party and arrest its declining fortunes. Or decide, strategically, to saddle their party with a leader with major liabilities, political (and perhaps other) debts to her former husband and the recipient of a charisma-bypass operation, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. If you have taken the view that your own party is unsalvageable and a new movement is needed, your best bet on the way to the exit door is to lumber the ANC with the good doctor.
It is perfectly true that breakaway parties here have little traction over time. But what is striking about previous splinters from the ANC giant since 1994 is how they performed in the debut poll after their formation.
In the 1999 election, the first such breakaway, Bantu Holomisa’s UDM, posted 3.42%; in 2009 COPE under Terror Lekota got 7% of the votes and last time, in 2014, Julius Malema’s EFF received 6.35% of the total.
Of course some of that original post-1999 anti-ANC vote grew and then redistributed itself between these smaller parties and some went to the much larger DA.
But all our previous elections were held when the ANC itself was enjoying between 62% and 69% support.
Now the ANC is reduced (in the local election) to 54% and Zuma is now apparently more unpopular here than Trump is in the world. So factor in one more breakaway with some real and credible heavy-hitters at the helm of it, and add that to the current share of the existing and combined opposition vote, and you will have a dramatically different result. Possibly you will wake up in 2019 in a completely different country.
Is this scenario probable? Who knows? The “experts” certainly don’t. The real answer – certainly as the British election shocks, on top of Trump and Brexit, revealed – is that the real “experts” need to add a big dose of humility to their prognostications.
In Harold Macmillan, the British Conservative Party had a vote-winning, crafty and popular prime minister. Today May represents in every respect his opposite. After he retired in 1963, Macmillan was asked to name the most difficult matter he had to deal with. His droll answer: “Events, dear boy, events.” This applies here and now and even in our own rough and tumble.
Just fasten your seat belts.
• Featured in The Times